A study on Situational Awareness and Strategic Stability

Modern technologies have the potential to provide significant operational advantages by allowing unprecedented insight into adversary capabilities, activities, and potentially even intentions.

These advanced capabilities can greatly enhance our situational awareness, but they can also introduce new risks, especially in crises or conflicts between nuclear-armed states.

To make sound, strategic decisions, it is imperative to understand how these modern situational awareness systems and technologies could impact risk perceptions and crisis pathways by either creating incentives to escalate a crisis or heightening the potential for dangerous miscalculation.

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What is Strategic Situational Awareness (Strategic SA)?

Strategic situational awareness is the ability to
the operating environment,
actual attacks from false alarms across the

The Changing Situational Awareness Ecosystem


Capabilities that provide theater and battlefield-level situational awareness, to include related indications, warning or other operational information as well as information on the status, location, and condition of conventional assets and capabilities.


Capabilities that provide indications, warning or other operational information on the status, location, or condition of adversary nuclear weapons, delivery or command and control systems.


The traditional strategic SA environment featured stratified and largely isolated capabilities.

  • This enabled nuclear and conventional strategic SA to operate independently.

The passive nature of the ecosystem was designed to detect attacks, not anticipate or interfere with them.

  • Traditional strategic SA-enhancing technologies operated fully outside of adversary territories and systems at long stand-off range.
  • These systems could only detect actions once they had occurred, not anticipate future action, and existed largely out of range of adversary attack.

The bright line between strategic SA systems used for conventional and nuclear missions meant strategic SA assets could be fairly secure and compartmentalized.

  • This dynamic made it harder for misinterpretation to occur between conventional and nuclear events.
  • Systems such as command and control were considered sufficiently redundant and invulnerable to attack.
  • SA assets were unlikely to be targeted in conventional conflict because the risks of nuclear escalation were clear and the benefits in the conventional battlespace were limited.
End of WWII
Korean War begins

First deployed 1952

Sensors — A system of hydrophones used for tracking submarines.


Three radars became operational from 1960-1963; still in use today

Sensors — System of three ultra-high frequency radars that can track inter-continental ballistic missiles and provide space situational awareness. Upgraded in the 2000s to support missile defense.


RC-135A first deployed in 1964; since then 14 variants of the RC-135 have been deployed. Some remain in use today.

Sensors — Can collect and disseminate intelligence to characterize the operational environment. Two variants of the RC-135 were equipped to monitor ballistic missile launches, but the remainder only had a conventional mission.

United States' Strategic Situational Awareness Capabilities
Cuban Missile Crisis
U.S. enters Vietnam War
U.S. lands on the moon

First four satellites launched 1970-1973; a total of 19 additional satellites have been launched since then to replace older satellites.

Space Platforms — Constellation of satellites that uses infrared imaging to constantly monitor the globe for ballistic missile launches (at land or at sea).



Sensors — Aircraft with integrated command and control, battle management, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

United States' Strategic Situational Awareness Capabilities
Fall of the Berlin Wall


The rapid nature of technological advancement is complicating the ability to sustain a strategic SA ecosystem that remains stratified and passive; compartmentalized and secure. Technological developments in the conventional SA ecosystem have outpaced developments in the nuclear SA space, leading countries to increasingly rely on conventional SA capabilities for nuclear SA missions. At the same time, nuclear SA assets have begun to slowly take on some conventional missions. As a result, we are witnessing the collapse of the organized, stratified traditional SA ecosystem.



Cyber — I.e. North Korea stole U.S.-South Korean war plans after breaching South Korean military networks (2017)

Gulf War
Dissolution of the Soviet Union


Unmanned Platforms — Remotely piloted vehicle that can provide near-real-time imagery and signals intelligence.

War in Afghanistan begins
War in Iraq begins

Upgrades to BMEWS radars began in 2005 and are ongoing.

Sensors — Software upgrades to BMEWS radars enable them to support missile defense.


Four dedicated SBIRS satellites launched 2011-2018. Some SBIRS sensors are co-hosted on other satellites.

Space Platforms — Replacement for DSP satellites; can detect a greater range of infrared signals, allowing for expanded mission set.


The emerging SA ecosystem is highly networked, real-time, and dual use, creating a landscape that is highly capable but also murkier and more complex. The rapid pace of technological advancement along with the dual-use (nuclear and conventional) applicability of emerging capabilities and the blurring of lines between nuclear and conventional command and control are all reshaping the emerging landscape. Combined with an increasingly competitive security environment characterized by the use of grey zone or hybrid tactics designed to challenge and coerce at the sub-conventional level, this emerging SA ecosystem can provide vast amounts of information, more quickly and more precisely than ever before, including about new forms of strategic attack that may prove elusive to traditional warning systems.


2018 (est.)-present; program will likely go until early 2020s

Platform Control and Information Support — Project Maven will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to differentiate people and objects in drone footage.

Artificial Intelligence Analysis Applications

Unmanned Platforms — Unmanned Underwater Vehicles that allow access to shallow or previously difficult-to-penetrate waters and provide a dynamic platform for observation and detection.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) Systems for Submarine Detection

Cyber — AI will enable attackers to more efficiently probe adversary networks for vulnerabilities that can be exploited to gain situational awareness.


Unmanned Platforms — Groups of small UAVs that can operate without operator input (using a collective “brain” instead to distribute tasks) to complete a mission


Space Platforms — Constellation of tens or hundreds of small satellites that provide persistent and resilient coverage of the earth.


"I think we've got to have a balance between optimism about what we can do with this technology but also realism about the dark side."

—SAM NUNN, Former U.S. Senator and Chairman Emeritus, CSIS Board of Trustees

Does this matter?

The emerging ecosystem defies previous limitations on speed, precision, and resiliency, as well as the quantity and quality of highly detailed information. It can improve confidence, increase insights, and expand warning times.

However, this new ecosystem may also introduce new risks, potentially undermining crisis stability by increasing the chance of first-mover incentive and miscalculation.

First-Mover incentive

The quantity and quality of information as well as its predictive nature can create increased pressure for offensive action.


The fast pace at which large volumes of information can be relayed, the networked and blended* nature of the systems, and the method of collection can increase the risk that intentions can be misunderstood and responses unnecessarily escalatory.

* same strategic SA capabilities used to support both convention and nuclear capabilities

How to navigate this project

This project examines how emerging technologies are rapidly reshaping U.S. strategic situational awareness and the implications of these technologies for strategic stability during crises between nuclear-armed states.

  • Final Report

    Informed by research and eight tabletop exercises conducted with nearly 150 participants overall, this two-year study examines implications of the emerging strategic situational awareness ecosystem and its impact on crisis decisionmaking.

  • Issue Briefs

    A number of emerging technologies are reshaping the situational awareness space, with some countries developing these technologies at a faster rate than others. To learn more about these technologies and their state of play, click here.

  • Analysis

    These analysis pieces, written by a number of current and rising experts consider a wide-range of issues affecting the situational awareness space and strategic stability.

  • Resources

    The research and studies that have informed this project can be found here.